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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

I was reminded last week that Crested Butte is a sublime mountain town blessed with small-scale ambiance. Riding my mountain bike to a high ridge, I looked down at the glitter of metal roofs and felt like Gulliver watching over Lilliput.

Community scale is an essential ingredient to Crested Butte because it allows people to exchange friendly hellos from their “townie” bikes. July Fourth is a town-wide celebration that gathers the tribe on Elk Avenue for an impromptu sun dance.

I lived in Crested Butte through the ’70s and early ’80s and deeply cherish the vital social contract I experienced there. When the town fought a mining company 30 years ago, a communal bond was forged against a common threat, and the town prevailed.

In Carbondale, I recognize the same communal bonding. It’s made possible, like in Crested Butte, by face-to-face contact among the people of the town. You don’t get that same contact during rush hour on Aspen’s Main Street or Glenwood’s Grand Avenue. It comes only from eye-to-eye, person-to-person, heart-to-heart communication.

Social intimacy makes Crested Butte and Carbondale seem more vital and congenial than other towns. It also makes them more politically functional. When people can meet casually and talk informally, civic engagement becomes a palliative to political divisiveness. We need more of that, and here’s why.

A small Danish farming community called Samso has made itself energy independent, in part because of community cohesion. According to an article in The New Yorker, Samso is not only energy self-sufficient; it is an exporter of energy for a profit.

A decade ago Samso citizens made a grassroots pact for energy independence. The result was a kind of barn-raising, but with solar panels, biomass generation, district heating and wind power. The first and biggest step, explained one of the organizers, was enlisting support of the island’s opinion leaders.

“One reason to live here can be social relations,” explained a Samso resident. “Our renewable-energy project was a new kind of social relation, and we used that. We made it a sport.”

In Samso, an engaging social dynamic spread rapidly. Participation became the norm, and energy efficiency formed a communal bond. Samso became the model for a concept called the “2000-Watt Society,” which refers to a baseline of per capita electricity use.

“What’s important to know,” said the program director, “is that the 2,000-Watt Society is not a program of hard life. It is not belt tightening. It is not starving. It is not having less comfort or fun. It is a creative approach to the future.”

Most of Europe operates on a 5,000-watt society. The United States and Canada run on 12,000-watt societies. Cutting wattage “is a basic matter of fairness,” explained the program director, because lower energy use strives for a global egalitarian virtue.

Fairness is a key value, and it may have the power to convert the status quo of a 12,000-watt society like America into something more sustainable. If America truly champions egalitarian ideals, then fairness through energy efficiency should be one cornerstone of our national energy ethic.

Samso gained energy independence through the power of shared community values derived through healthy civic engagement. That kind of communal unity should be encouraged more widely in the United States with pedestrian malls, bikeways and a more personalized community scale.

Our communities should emulate Crested Butte, and they should activate like Samso. The necessary ingredients are civic engagement, shared values, inspired leadership and community action. The current energy crisis is a powerful catalyst for positive community action, and it’s up to us citizens to make it happen.


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